Will Syria's fires singe Lebanon?
Deadly sectarian clashes near the Syrian border in northern Lebanon have sparked concern that Syria's turmoil is spilling over to its neighbor.
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Lebanon long has lived under the shadow of its powerful Syrian neighbor and many Lebanese say that it will be hard for this tiny Mediterranean country to escape unsinged as Syria burns.
“We are going to have a few security problems in the future based on the behavior of Damascus of the last few days and weeks,” says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon’s As Safir daily newspaper. “We are heading toward some trouble in the south [along the border with Israel] and more trouble in Tripoli and maybe some small bombings of the kind we have grown used to in the past.”
Since Syrian opposition protesters took to the streets in mid-March, Lebanon has suffered a spate of security incidents. Most recently, six were killed in June 17 clashes between Tripoli's Sunnis and Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam which also forms the backbone of the Syrian regime.
In addition, the mysterious abduction of seven Estonians on a cycling holiday through Syria and Lebanon, as well as a roadside bomb attack against United Nations peacekeepers (the first in more than three years), have sparked speculation that Syria may be using some of its allies in Lebanon to stir up trouble. Such allegations remain unconfirmed – the perpetrators and motives of both acts are still unknown. But the speculation indicates the level of unease and suspicion here.
But while the security breaches have helped create a climate of uncertainty and more are expected in the short term, some Lebanese analysts are confident that Syria's unrest will not be detrimental in the long term.
'The Sunnis want a war'
The most consistent and volatile flash point in Lebanon is probably the front line between Tripoli's Sunni-populated Bab Tebbaneh district and the hilltop Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, marked by a string of ragged bullet-pocked and abandoned buildings.
Over the past six years, there have been several bouts of fighting here as Lebanon lurched from one political crisis to another. Last Friday’s clashes between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tebbaneh, as well as the adjacent Sunni district Qobbe, offer a portent of more trouble to come.
Who started the clashes depends on whom you ask. Alawites insist that the Sunnis shot first, while the Sunnis say that the Alawites opened fire on a demonstration held to support the Syrian opposition movement.
“[The Sunnis] want a war and they are preparing for it,” says Rifaat Eid, the portly and convivial leader of Lebanon’s Alawite community, which is close to Syria's regime. His shelves are filled with photographs of Syria's leaders as well as Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the powerful head of the Syria-backed Hezbollah movement.